Barbara Hoster

“Struggles of Spirit and Soul: ling 靈 in Su Xuelin’s (1897–1999) Writings”

Online lecture presented at the International Workshop “Transforming Communities of ‘Spirits’ and ‘Souls’: The Term Ling 靈 in Religious, Medical and Secular Literatures in Premodern and Modern China and East Asia,” Freie Universität Berlin, Department of East Asian Studies, Sinology, 18 June 2021


The Chinese woman writer Su Xuelin 蘇雪林 shows a special affinity for the term ling 靈: As one of her pseudonyms she uses the name Lingfen 靈芬; a collection of her articles and essays on religious themes is entitled Linghai weilan 靈海微瀾 (English title: Some Thoughts of Mind); and in her novel Jixin 棘心 (Heart of Thorns) she employs ling in various lexical compounds more than 150 times. This paper argues that during her exceptionally long life Su Xuelin constantly struggled between antagonistic influences and forces – her upbringing in a traditional Chinese cultural setting and her exposure to western culture during her studies in France, her mindset of an enlightened May Fourth intellectual and her adopted Christian faith, her inclination to follow traditional female role expectations and her pursuit of an independent life as a woman writer, researcher and university teacher. In my analysis of Su Xuelin’s use of ling in her writings, I focus on key passages of her novel Jixin that reflect the struggles of spirit and soul in the process of her heroine Xingqiu’s eventual conversion to Catholicism. By comparing the respective context of these appearances of ling’s various compounds in the novel, I demonstrate the range of this term’s religious connotations from the spheres of Christianity, traditional Chinese religious belief, and Buddhism.